Monday, January 10, 2011

The House that [Name Here] Built

The House that Nat Built, 2010

I was going to call this “The House that Frank Built” because it’s where Frank Sinatra made some of his most famous recordings.

Then I realized I had to call it “The House that Johnny Built” after I learned that Capitol Records had been co-founded by Johnny Mercer. That’s okay. I mean, if anyone in American musical history deserves to have a building attributed to him, you could do a lot worse than think of Johnny Mercer.

It turns out I was wrong altogether. This former headquarters of Capitol Records was known at the time it was built as “The House that Nat Built” in recognition of all the money Nat King Cole made for the company.

It’s an interesting building, certainly one of the most iconic in Hollywood. It’s said to be the world’s first circular office building. Design-wise, it was a modern, earthquake-proof gesture in a landscape of crumbly Deco buildings.

Long before the current “green” building movement, architect Welton Beckett was just being practical when he designed the energy efficient awnings that give the building its distinctive look. People who didn’t know that have always thought the awnings were intended to make the building look like a stack of 45-rpm records.

Like a pyramid, the real business of the Capitol Records Tower is out of sight. Its recording studios, designed by guitarist Les Paul, are still regarded as some of the best in the world. The outside walls of the ground floor studios are ten inch thick concrete. Set in almost a foot from the concrete exterior, the individual studios rest on cushions of rubber and cork.

Thirty feet below ground level are a famous series of trapezoidal-shaped echo chamber studios, some big enough to hold a full symphony orchestra. It’s said the design of these subterranean studios creates an echo effect that lasts up to five seconds.

There’s also some whimsy about the place. Except for a brief period in 1992, when it was changed to say “Hollywood 50” in honor of the label’s fiftieth anniversary, the red beacon on top of the building has spelled out the word “Hollywood” in Morse code since the building was opened in 1956.

Talk about technology span! Here was a state-of-the-art 1950s building purposely topped off with a beacon programmed to flash a language already more than a hundred years old. Samuel Morse’s granddaughter was even on hand to flip the switch at the building’s opening. To me, that makes about as much sense as having one of the Wright Brothers’ descendants flip the switch on the first computers at Twitter.

[What to see a Capitol Records studio in action? Ken Fields brought this to my attention.]


  1. Much nicer than that round building in Norfolk.

  2. Interesting! I always loved Nat King Cole, too. Well, and Frank, of course!